The downside of presenteeism

Presenteeism has crept into modern-day business vocabulary and is now listed as a new word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Defined as “presenteeism (noun): working when sick especially to avoid the stigma of being absent. “  Research about the negative impact of this trend is significant, with an estimated impact on workplace effectiveness and productivity amounting to billions.

Missed point

The focus has hitherto been on the health aspect of the definition,  which is of course completely understandable. But perhaps a little brazenly I think we’re missing the main point.

For me, the key part of the definition is “to avoid the stigma of being absent“. This extends the insidious and more extensive reach of presenteeism beyond macho, masters of the universe,   boiler room cultures, into business practises.  Many of us encounter these every day, as organisations become  “lean, mean and keen”.

This is how presenteeism is manifested:

  • Not taking vacations  – despite all the occupational health information about the value of annual holidays, even in countries with statutory entitlement provisions – many still don’t take their full quotas.
  • Staying late when there is no work to be done  – I have much first hand anecdotal evidence to suggest that this practise is rife and that employees who work only their contracted hours are viewed negatively, even if there is no specific deadline to meet.
  • Working to unnecessarily tight deadlines set by disorganised management or power playing superiors.
  • Working late and at weekends to avoid seeming uncommitted.  Technology has created a culture of 24/7 availability and those who don’t respond to messages on their iPhones within nano seconds are perceived to be “slackers”.  I have one contact who stores his emails and sends them out at what would be post business hours in various global time zones,  to give an impression of super  diligence.
  • Skipping lunch  –   the “lunch is for wimps” mentality is prevalent in many organisations, with one connection fainting with hypoglycemia after working for 9 hours without eating.  Many eat unhealthy snacks at their desk which drains energy and reduces output.

“Lean, mean and keen business practises contribute to a false notion of efficiency


The fallout from this culture reaches and impacts entire workforces. In particular it hits those who can’t subscribe to this charade and for any number of reasons have to work their contracted hours. Working mothers are one category to feel the judgement heat. Anyone who knows any working mum (or who has been one) understands all too well, that even if they work part-time, this phrase generally refers to compensation, rather than the hours worked. The workload managed almost certainly hovers around 100%.

Victoria Pynchon highlights this in her Forbes  piece where she boldly talks about the amount of  “face-time” wasted in her career, suggesting that having a family might have forced her  “  … to work in a more focused manner, to organize myself and my working teams better”  But truthfully having children isn’t a prerequisite for being focused, although it is certainly necessary .

But on a general workplace level isn’t it time to over turn this outdated culture, which  all research suggests leads to a dramatic decrease in individual and therefore organisational productivity.  Or as Brendan S. maintains that  as offices are inherently inefficient places we should be measuring productivity by the results obtained and not the hours spent at a desk.

The irony is that “presenteeism ” does eventually lead to “absenteeism”,  with stress from heavy workloads and job insecurity fears,  being the highest causes of  sickness absence.

Or will we reach a situation such as we see with the Apple manufacturers in China where shamefully, a new spin on workplace Health and Safety  is to install safety nets  around their buildings to reduce the suicide rate.

What do you think?  

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17 thoughts on “The downside of presenteeism

  1. Annabel

    It doesn’t have to be like this. All of this is the grandchild of industrialisation, when villages all had their clocks set to the same time for the railway and factory workers were paid by the hour.

    A lot of this is driven by lack of management skill – it is easy in some jobs ot measure where and when someone does what, than whether there was any point to doing it at all.

    We need to find ways to evaluate whether something should be done, before we start measuring how often and at what time of day. Spending a lot of time thinking about that right now.

    Meanwhile, the whole thing of presenteeism only works if everyone thinks it does and goes along with it. As soon as there is a viable alternative it is natural to switch.

      1. Annabel

        The research is all logical and comes from the head. In reality we chose what to do and how to behave mostly from how we feel. Managers feel they can’t manage people they can’t see and it is that bit we have to work on. I am working on it – bet you are too. If we can give people techniques and methods they are happy with, they can relax and get past it. If you find any to add to my collection – always open for input.

  2. Wendy Mason

    This is the first time I’d heard the awful story about the Apple building – how incredibly crass is it to think that presents a solution? During my career, in the public sector, I encountered suicide for work reasons three times – once from overwork, once for over-commitment (a cherished project had been pulled) and last, but by no means least, someone who had been made redundant and fell into utter despair. For me, all three showed a lack decent management. Yes, even the redundant deserve our support.

    Sadly the presenteeism of the 80s and 90s appears to have returned in force. I wish people understood how the attitude can be exploited – I know of at least one global consultancy firm that instructs its consultants on assignment to stay at their desks and look busy until the last client employee has left the floor – even if all they are doing is playing computer games, very discretely. They know only too well the psychological buttons they are pressing by doing so!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Wendy – yes sadly the Apple story has been around for some time now and doesn’t jive with the iconic memories of supposed philanthropist Steve Jobs. The words own houses and order come to mind. I did read that the minimum wage has been raised recently.

      I have fortunately never encountered suicide in my professional life, but I have been involved with many cases of break down, depression, addiction, relationship damage and other health issues because of unacceptable demands made direclty on employees or via a presenteeism culture. A sad commentary on our times.

  3. Greg


    I came across your discussion on Presenteeism and found it an interesting topic for discussion. Not sure that Merriam-Webster has settled on this definition for full entry into their dictionary but I also found Presenteeism defined by as…

    1. the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc., often resulting in reduced productivity.

    2. the practice of working long hours at a job without the real need to do so.

    The problem is that Presenteeism extends beyond illness and long hours. Presenteeism is very simple – being physically present but not mentally focused on the role you are there to play. That could happen for a number of reasons. Illness is certainly one reason but others might include fatigue, resentment of a task, unrelated stress (i.e. thinking about a personal issue at work), distraction, etc… The definition should be expanded to include any reason for which someone is not completely focused and committed to the task at hand.

    For all the costs of poor health in the world today (absenteeism, medical costs, disability costs) Presenteeism is thought to make up 60% or more of the total cost of lost productivity from all causes plus the actual costs of medical treatments/disability and absenteeism.

    Today we, as a society, seem to take pride in showing up on time and leaving late as well as multi-tasking. These practices lower productivity and make us feel busier than we actually are. We then struggle to take care of those things that actually mean the most to us – friends & family.

    IT doesn’t need to be this way. Mozart said it best “the shorter way to do many things is to do only one thing at a time”. Stay focused and complete a task then move on to the next. If you plan your day and consider the most important items to complete in that day you will have increased control on your time and productivity.

    Exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, move regularly throughout the day and work on tasks sequentially (stop multi-tasking) and you will notice a change in your results.

    Great topic for discussion – I had never thought to look up the word in a dictionary!


    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Greg – thanks for your insightful comment. I agree with everything you say. The reason I lean towards the definition I’ve highlighted is that it touches on the reason – the stigma of being absent. Clearly as Victoria Pychon said on Twitter is that there are lots of ways of being absent while seeming present which is why so many go through the charade. Lack of focus caused by multi-tasking, stress, body sugar lows caused by hunger etc are but a few.

      As you rightly point out the evidence to suggest this is counter productive abounds, but it still is the norm.

      I’m not sure what needs to take place to induce a general cultural shift. The avoidance of stigma is prompted by fear and insecurity. Thoughts?

  4. Louise Altman @ The Intentional Workplace

    Important post Dorothy.
    What continues to astound me is that people think this is effective – a “rational” choice.
    Now that we now that emotional contagion is real, that brains are in fact – social – and in constant communication, we get to understand the powerful pressures people feel in conformity to these outdated (agree with Annabel’s perspective on the origins) behaviors.
    I truly believe we are at a tipping point in turning these toxic norms around, but it will take real leadership to do it. The entire economy is based on these unhealthy “productivity” norms and it will never grow sustainably under these circumstances.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Louise thanks for your comment. Very well stated about the toxic mindset that dominates many aspects of our working culture. Sustainable growth will be elusive when we reach a point when suicide prevention nets feature in our workplaces and are seen as a progressive initiative.

  5. Marjolein Oorsprong

    Another great topic – right on the mark! It resonates strongly with what I have encountered and still encounter in my working life.

  6. Kathy

    Forgive me for pitching in late, but I keep wondering why no one points out that people who stay late even though there’s no work to do maximize inefficiency to do it. In looking back at other times in my career when hours mattered more than results, I realize that without thinking I maximized inefficient processes to drag limited work out to meet time goals. So did my coworkers. I’m struck now by how thoroughly what got measured got done without our manager or us considering how foolish the exercise was. I could have turned a lot of creative energy to getting big jobs done fast if I hadn’t been so focused on creative ways to make small tasks last past quitting time that I had lost track of the point. I’d love to see an article on that.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Kathy -thanks for your comment. There is no deadline on engagement! There is a strong argument to measure results rather than presence, productivity rather than activity.

  7. Pingback: The phrase “having it all” rears its ugly head again | Dorothy Dalton

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